Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Train

Our train pulled into a station somewhere between Fez and Marrakech. A man in his early twenties wearing jeans slid open the glass door to our compartment, ushered in his wife––clutching a four-month-old baby swaddled in white cloth––and guided her to take the seat next to me. Hoisting a small bag into the overhead storage rack, he then sat opposite, between my husband who was reading a book, and a swarthy, chatty man in his sixties with a thick middle. 
       “As-salaam Alaykum––peace be with you,” the couple smiled as we exchanged greetings in Moroccan Arabic, the young man nodding to each of us with a warm, toothy smile, his dark-brown eyes fixated for a moment on each of the three strangers, then flitting between us, his wife and his baby. 
       Within minutes the older man had turned to mush and leaned toward the baby, smiling, cooing something we couldn’t understand, the young man and his shyer wife chattering back and forth with the older man, as if he were family.
       “Welcome in Morocco,” the black-curly haired young man then smiled at me and my husband, his beautiful wife smiling at us too, lowering her thick-lashed eyes bashfully as she jostled the baby who had begun to scream and fuss. 
        Bounding out of his seat and squeezing next to his wife, the young man scooped up the baby. He stood and hovered the child above his head, cajoled and whispered sweet-somethings to her. The baby giggled, the older man “aaaahed,”  laughing. The young wife smiled too, and we all struck up the kind of conversation that occurs in train carriages around the world, despite language barriers––them: “Why are you in Morocco? How do you like it?”––us: “How old is your baby–do you have other children too?”
        An hour or so after we’d learned about their parents, brothers and sisters, and that they were headed to Marrakech for a few days vacation, we felt as if we’d been guests at their wedding a year and a half earlier. The young mother, draped in a sapphire blue headscarf, suckled her baby under a white cloth, the man opposite slept with his glasses tipped on the end of his nose, and I gazed out the window at vast red-desert plains, a faint smile on my lips.   I wondered why––in crowded carriages of the London Underground, the New York Subway, and to-and-fro from work on trains in Boston and Melbourne––we all stare down at our books, tap on our laptops, listen to music through our headphones.   What would happen, I wondered, if we had the courage to speak to the person sitting next to us?


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A Package From the Past

 When I yanked my suitcase from the swirling luggage carousel, it landed on the floor with a thud.  A paper tag had been wrapped around the handle at the check-in counter in Australia. “HEAVY,” it read.  Inside the suitcase wedged in-between my clothes, cardboard boxes and metal boxes were filled with old documents, papers, and letters written on thin airmail paper. My wheeled hand-luggage was heavy too, filled with more paper. And black-and white photos of my grandparents that had been snapped in Warsaw in the 1930’s, plus pictures of a five year old girl with flowers in her hair frolicking in the mountains near Dachau, Germany; my mother in 1947 after she’d been flown there in a military plane from Poland a year earlier.

At home, I lay out the items carefully on a table. My mother has downsized recently. She’d given me this trove of memorabilia for safe-keeping. It will help to round out my book manuscript, enable me to describe what things looked like, the mountains towering behind her as she dipped her toes in a river, a year after her tummy had ached and gurgled while shivering with hunger in the dust and rubble of a bombed-out Warsaw.

A rectangular black cardboard box lies on my table, stuck together with tape. Inside is a ruler with measurement lines so tiny that I reach for my glasses. Scratched into the white resin is a barely legible date: 18.III.1932, and a name: Julek.  Julek had gifted the slide rule to my grandfather while they studied engineering at Danzig University. (Julek later committed suicide when he was about to be arrested by the Germans.)

My grandfather once published an article about his slide rule in an engineering magazine.*  “At the moment of my arrest I had the slide rule in my pocket,” he wrote, describing the day the Gestapo grabbed him, in 1944.  Three months later, the SS officer who'd interrogated him escorted him to a labor camp.“He stopped me before the gate and gave me back my slide rule,” Zdzislaw wrote. “My slide rule came with me through Auschwitz, Natzweiler and Dachau camps.  I was able to smuggle my rule even when naked in the showers.  I kept it under my feet.”

The slide rule might be obsolete–replaced by software tools and apps that generate the complex calculations for constructing buildings–but its journey through history is not.

*Przygoda, Zdzislaw, Slide Rule Column Brings back Memories, Canadian Consulting Engineer, July 1983